Friday, 30 March 2007

Can a democracy function on the cheap?

I've just done a live interview with BBC Northampton on the subject of the new £10,000 communications allowance that MPs voted for this week.

I was preceded by a journo from the Daily Express who thought MPs were given too much money. He failed to make it clear that expenses are not paid directly into an MP's bank account - and there were detailed rules covering for what purpose and to whom monies can be paid.

The argument I advanced was that we as voters are rightly expecting more of our representatives. The days when an MP need only visit his constituency at Elections are, thankfully long gone. We now expect them to be in their constituency, as much as at Westminster - to be available at 'surgeries' and in a constituency office at a time convenient for us - and to respond promptly to our communications (whether it be by traditional letter, or email, or telephone, or by our signing of a postcard or online form provided by a pressure group we support).

We expect annual reports from our children's schools - and from providers of all kinds of services - public or private - that we use. Why shouldn't we expect to get a regular report from our representatives on what they have been doing on our behalf? We as voters should be demanding it!

At the heart of the issue is how we expect our representives to serve us. Britain has a long tradition of idolising the 'gifted amateur' - (the plucky individual who does his best, with very limited resources) - rather than expecting professional standards from well resourced representatives who have systems and the capacity to meet the legitimate demands of those they should be serving.

I spend a lot of my time comparing the UK Parliament with the US Congress. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses. I think on this issue Parliament has a weakness - but is addressing it!

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Something to watch for the Holidays

If you have a few hours to spare over the Easter holidays, can I recommend the C-Span special on the history of the Capitol.

Over three days, C-Span dedicated their time to broadcasting programmes which showed viewers around the US Congress building (the Capitol) - and looked in detail at its history. It is now available on the web at


Enjoy - and share with us your comments.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

How can backbenchers be more effective?

I mentioned (14th March) the work that was being undertaken by the Modernisation Committee into the role of backbenchers.

The committee has been meeting on Wednesday mornings - and the evidence is published on their website. A number of issues have been raised - and I'm sure we will be discussing specfic topics in detail over the weeks ahead.

This morning I attended the hearing at which John Bercow MP (Con); Martin Salter MP (Lab) and Andrew Dismore MP (Lab) gave evidence. There was a real buzz in committee room 15 as the witnesses and members of the committee discussed ways of making the UK parliament - and its members - more effective.

Jack Straw (Leader of the House - and Chair of the Modernisation Committee) began by asking about "the retreat into constituency work" which has been observed at Westminster. Martin Salter corrected him, "not a retreat, but a tidal wave". He highlighted the need to put extra resources into aiding MPs deal with the massive increase in communications from constituents. Jack Straw recalled that in the 1950s the average member received 15 to 25 letters a week - now MPs are deluged with letters; postcards from constituents backing professionally organised campaigns by pressure groups; telephone calls and - most of all - email.

Mr Salter made the point - which most people in the room seemed to agree with - that if MPs are to meet the increased expectations of their constituents - they need the resources and staff - to meet them. John Bercow stated that MPs need to boldly argue the case for increased resources - and the campaign must be championed by the Leader of the House - particularly in the face of a predictable cynical reaction from the media.

Other matters raised included the value of Early Day Motions. Martin Salter described them as "parliamentary graffiti". [well that was better than 'parliamentary loo paper', a definition given by someone later]. These are "petitions" exclusively for MPs

[Definition from Parliamentary Website -

Early day motions (EDMs) are formal motions submitted for debate in the House of Commons. However, very few EDMs are actually debated. Instead, they are used for reasons such as publicising the views of individual MPs, drawing attention to specific events or campaigns, and demonstrating the extent of parliamentary support for a particular cause or point of view. ]

There was a suggestion, favourably received, that should an EDM attract a certain number of signatures, say 200, it should trigger a debate in the chamber of the House of Commons.

There were calls for more frequent topical debates. John Bercow said that chamber debates should be 'topical, relevant and subject to an outcome'.

Continuing professional development of MPs was also discussed. Already many MPs participate in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme or on a placement arranged by the Industry & Parliament Trust. It was suggested that MPs could serve internships with specialists in a field they wish to specialise in.

Dawn Butler raised a smile when she asked the witnesses, "does this place beat the modernisation out of you?"

This is a committee worth watching - and we can discuss some of their ideas in this forum - I hope you will!

Saturday, 24 March 2007

The Funny Side of Politics

I enjoy a good laugh about Parliament and Congress. There are some excellent websites that I like to visit regularly for my amusement.


I saw their show during one of my visits to Washington DC - and have bought all of their CDs since my first trip to the city. What began as a show put on by congressional staffers for a party has become a must-see (and hear) event. They perform weekly in the Ronald Reagan building - and for those who can't get to see the show as often as we would like - their current satirical songs can be listened to on their website



Mr Hoggart is the parliamentary sketchwriter for the Guardian. An excellent observer of the Westminster Parliament - he is also very amusing. Read his current and archive pieces at

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/ (and select Simon Hoggart on the drop down menu).

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Power of the Purse

I attended an excellent meeting of the Hansard Society, entitled "Parliament, the Budget and Public Money". Speakers included Alex Brazier (Director, Parliament & Government Programme, Hansard Society); Edward Leigh MP (Chair of the Public Accounts Committee); John Whiting (PricewaterhouseCoopers) and Liam Halligan (Economics Editor, The Sunday Telegraph).

All speakers were agreed - the level of involvement by parliament in the Budget process is shamefully low. The 'mother of parliaments' - that won its powers in struggles with Kings over the raising of money - now routinely signs the blank cheque offered by the Executive.

The Budget statement, to be made today, is a great formal occasion, but after a few hours of debate (to be spread over the next week) and the speedy passage of a Finance Bill - the Government will have what it wants, without too many questions being asked.

There has been a fantastic improvement in recent years of scrutiny of expenditure - after the event! The National Audit Office is going a great job - and Select Committees have flowered - but the budget process remains ineffective.

The process in Washington was highly praised by all speakers. They were impressed by the serious and in depth hearings held by both authorizing and appropriations committees. They agreed it was an ideal to be aspired to. Of course the UK will not adopt the system wholesale or immediately - but as more parliamentarians consider that system, and reconsider their own responsibilities - we could (in a typically English glacial way) start moving to adopting some of these techniques.

What do you think? Any pitfalls to avoid?

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Lords Results

Their Lordships have spoken - the results were

Wholly Appointed For 361 Against 121 Majority 240 Total Voting 482
50% Elected For 46 Against 409 Majority 363 Total Voting 455
60% Elected For 45 Against 392 Majority 347 Total Voting 437
80% Elected For 114 Against 336 Majority 222 Total Voting 450
100% Elected For 122 Against 326 Majority 204 Total Voting 448

So it's quite clear - The Lords wishes to remain an unelected House. How will the Commons react?

Should the issue be left to die? Or should a concerted effort begin to change - not just the House of Lords - but the whole constitutional settlement. One thing is clear from the debates of the last two weeks - there is great unhappiness at

* the power the Executive has over Parliament
* the power political parties have, and could have in selecting candidates

What do you think should happen? Please share them with this transatlantic community.

Keep Watching - It's Fascinating

Sorry no blogs for a couple of days - but a very busy time here at Westminster. I've spent many hours watching the House of Lords debate - which reaches its climax at 15.30 onwards (GMT) today.

To watch both archive of the Lords debate (and last weeks Commons debate) plus live coverage today go to


In addition, I am just off to the Modernisation Committee where Lord (Philip) Norton; Robert Blackburn; Philip Cowley; Philip Giddings and Michael Rush - the leading academics on the British Parliament, plus up & coming Gemma Rosenblatt of the Hansard Society - will be giving evidence to the Commons Modernisation Committee in their hearing on "Strengthening the Role of the Backbencher AND Making Better Use of Non-Legislative Time".

A Feast for everyone interested in how the UK Parliament functions. It too should be available live & on archive on Parliamentlive.tv.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Comparative Treatment

The medical treatment of service personnel has hit the headlines both sides of the Atlantic. In the US conditions at the Walter Reed Hospital have come under scrutiny. On Sunday many of the British newspapers focused on claims that "veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering flashbacks, trauma and panic attacks are being told to wait 18 months or longer for treatment on the National Health Service."

Both are scandals - and reveal the different approaches taken by the two legislatures. Committees in Congress are already investigating claims about Walter Reed. At Westminster this week the House of Lords will hold a debate on "the state of the armed forces of the Crown"; where the weekend's stories will no doubt be raised.

The substantive issue is important - but so is the way our legislators are able to deal with it. I'll be watching the two approaches closely - I hope you will too - and will share your comments on the similarities and differences.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Current Business

While Westminster is dominated by reform of the House of Lords, and the not unconnected issue of the Cash for Honours affair, Congress continues to grapple with the issue of Iraq. Scandal also is a talking point on the western side of the Atlantic.

Background to the debate on Iraq in the House of Representatives can be found on the website of Sonny Hoyer, Majority Whip. http://www.majorityleader.gov/

The conviction of "Scooter" Libby makes this weeks' editions of Time and the Economist. An amusing take on this events events in the Cash for Questions affair can be heard at the start of the "Now Show" - why not take a listen on http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/mainframe.shtml?http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/comedy_promo.shtml?link

The House of Lords begin their debate on reform on Monday. Watch it live via this site. I'm hoping to sit in on at least some of the debate

Friday, 9 March 2007

Separation of Powers

One of the issues raised in the debate over the reform of the House of Lords is the role of the Government in the Upper House. Britain has a system of 'ministerial accountability' - in which ministers are expected to be members of either House of Parliament, and are accountable to the House for their actions. Question Time is a key part of both Houses' days.

Should Britain consider a partial separation of powers. Some MPs argued that the reformed House of Lords should not include Ministers. Their concern is that the present system ensures a group of subservient peers, who are appointed to support the Government. There is a substantial "payroll vote" - members who are expected to vote for every Government measure - or they must resign (losing both power and salary). Perhaps it doesn't matter - as no party has a majority in the House of Lords - but would this survive in a wholly elected chamber.

Jack Straw wants a strong parliament - do we need to kick the executive out in the upper house to achieve this?

What's your view? What lessons can be learned from the US Congress? Does it achieve greater scrutiny despite not having members of the Executive as members?

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Time for MPs to stand up for themselves

Next week the House of Lords will react to an absolute majority of MPs voting for a wholly elected Upper House. There will be great resistance. MPs need now to resolve to start standing up for themselves.

1 They need to stand up against the inevitable attacks from the Lords - and those who believe that Britain's constitution is already the best that can be. Like it's manufacturing and technology Britain has been the world leader in development - rightly she is regarded as the "mother of Parliaments"; but has let others overtake her. Britain can cope with two elected chambers of its legislatures - it doesn't need to be governed by an appointed committee of the great and the good.

2 They need to stand up against the Executive. A common theme running through the debates preceding the votes, is that Britain needs a stronger parliament. Jack Straw said a number of times - "Strong government must be balanced by a strong parliament, and that means, among many other things, an effective, revising second chamber". Many speakers in the debate highlighted that theme and bemoaned the Commons subservience before the Executive. There were a number of amendments put down, though not called, which would remove ministers from the House of Lords. Many who voted against a fully elected Upper House did so because they fear it would give more powers to the party leaders - already they can control who gets selected for the Commons. The answer to the failings of Westminster is for our elected representatives to stand up for themselves. Reform the Commons as they reform the Lords. Re-assert the supremacy of parliament - this time not over the King, but over the Executive!

How should MPs set about standing up for greater scrutiny? What has Britain to learn from the US system?

Your views please.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Now it's getting interesting!!

I sat in the public gallery through the 8 votes held in the House of Commons, after one of the most interesting two days of debate in the Chamber for a long time.

But the fun has only just started. New week the House of Lords get to have their say - I'm sure it will be polite (as they always are - but the comments will be worth looking at closely!!!)

Of course - what does it all mean? Will it be 80% or 100% elected? As one MP noted an absolute majority of MPs (337 out of 646) voted in favour of a wholly elected Upper House. Then there is the long haul. The votes are merely indicative. Legislation is needed - and the opposition to reform isn't going to lay down its arms!

A Labour supporter of an all appointed House was seen outside the AYE lobby encouraging people to vote for the 100% elected option as the "Kamikaze Vote". Let the fun begin!!!

Should the Lords resist? Is the the dawn of new democratic parliamentary age? What do you think?